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Helping Kids Learn to Be Kind

Publication Date: 2014-07-25

This advice to parents from The Washington Post, July 18, 2014, makes me think of my legacy from my parents. We lived one block from the train tracks, and I have very strong memories of hobos sitting on our back stoop eating soup and crackers.

I also have strong memories of my dad telling me about entering adulthood during the Depression. He had a job that gave him a 25 cent voucher for lunch, so he'd find someone out on the street, invite him to lunch, and give him the voucher. "I wanted to hear their stories," Dad explained.

All these decades later, that sticks with me: We need to listen to peoples' stories.

I know the principles and advice below apply as much to school as to home and I will intersperse a few of my proudest moments as a teacher.

Are you raising nice kids? A Harvard psychologist gives 5 ways to raise them to be kind

By Amy Joyce July 18

Earlier this year, I wrote about teaching empathy, and whether you are a parent who does so. The idea behind it is from Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, who runs the Making Caring Common project, aimed to help teach kids to be kind.

I know, you'd think they are or that parents are teaching that themselves, right? Not so, according to a new study released by the group.

About 80 percent of the youth in the study said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. [emphasis added. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that "My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school."

Weissbourd and his cohorts have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. Why is this important? Because if we want our children to be moral people, we have to, well, raise them that way.

"Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood," the researchers write.

The five strategies to raise moral, caring children, according to Making Caring Common:

1. Make caring for others a priority

Why? Parents tend to prioritize their children's happiness and achievements over their children's concern for others. But children need to learn to balance their needs with the needs of others, whether it's passing the ball to a teammate or deciding to stand up for friend who is being bullied.

How? Children need to hear from parents that caring for others is a top priority. A big part of that is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honoring their commitments, even if it makes them unhappy. For example, before kids quit a sports team, band, or a friendship, we should ask them to consider their obligations to the group or the friend and encourage them to work out problems before quitting.

Try this
â€Â˘ Instead of saying to your kids: "The most important thing is that you’re happy," say "The most important thing is that you're kind."

â€Â˘ Make sure that your older children always address others respectfully, even when they're tired, distracted, or angry.

â€Â˘ Emphasize caring when you interact with other key adults in your children’s lives. For example, ask teachers whether your children are good community members at school.

Ohanian Comment: When David was a senior in high school he came back to tell me he made his whole family watch The Acorn People on TV. To make me feel even better, he added, "When we read the book, it was better."

I just can't see that there's a book on the Common Core "exemplary" list that could mean as to kids being dragged through "college and career readiness" as that book meant to those 7th and 8th graders (some of whom were in school only because their probation required it). Hey, we also read Flat Stanley, but that's another story.

2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude

Why? It’s never too late to become a good person, but it won’t happen on its own. Children need to practice caring for others and expressing gratitude for those who care for them and contribute to others’ lives. Studies show that people who are in the habit of expressing gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgivingâ€"and they’re also more likely to be happy and healthy.
How? Learning to be caring is like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetitionâ€"whether it’s a helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, or having a classroom jobâ€"make caring second nature and develop and hone youth’s caregiving capacities. Learning gratitude similarly involves regularly practicing it.
Try this
â€Â˘ Don’t reward your child for every act of helpfulness, such as clearing the dinner table. We should expect our kids to help around the house, with siblings, and with neighbors and only reward uncommon acts of kindness.
â€Â˘ Talk to your child about caring and uncaring acts they see on television and about acts of justice and injustice they might witness or hear about in the news.
â€Â˘ Make gratitude a daily ritual at dinnertime, bedtime, in the car, or on the subway. Express thanks for those who contribute to us and others in large and small ways.

Ohanian Comment: One of my proudest accomplishments as a teacher is that my classes of grade 7-8 roughnecks (who scored lowest in the school on standardized reading tests) were always invited to productions of the special class populated by children with Down syndrome--because "we were the best audience."

My joy runneth over in the hallways when I saw Keith, several of whose great difficulties I chronicled in One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards high-five several of those special ed kids.

3. Expand your child's circle of concern.
Why? Almost all children care about a small circle of their families and friends. Our challenge is help our children learn to care about someone outside that circle, such as the new kid in class, someone who doesn't speak their language, the school custodian, or someone who lives in a distant country.

How? Children need to learn to zoom in, by listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, by taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. They also need to consider how their decisions, such as quitting a sports team or a band, can ripple out and harm various members of their communities. Especially in our more global world, children need to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.

Try this
â€Â˘ Make sure your children are friendly and grateful with all the people in their daily lives, such as a bus driver or a waitress.
â€Â˘ Encourage children to care for those who are vulnerable. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the "caring and courage zone," like comforting a classmate who was teased.
â€Â˘ Use a newspaper or TV story to encourage your child to think about hardships faced by children in another country.

Ohanian Comment: I told my third graders that Charles had never been mainstreamed before and he was very very nervous. I didn't say "Be kind." I just asked them to think about how scary it would be to be in a room filled with strangers. Charles sat stiff as a board all through the first week. Not much interaction but children were polite. He was just too scared to respond.

Then, the second week, Charles vomited. He moaned, "Oh, I'm so weird, and burst into tears, burying his head in his arms. Before I could get to his desk to comfort him, a classmate patted him on the shoulder and shared his own vomiting story. And then another child shared. And another.

Lots of vomit stories. Charles didn't say a word, but he stopped crying.

Two days later, Charles arrived to class with a huge poster he'd painted. I knew I was featured because of the bright red hair. Across the top it said, "I LOVE THIS CLASS"-- along with a list of every child. His special ed teacher told me how hard Charles worked on the poster, asking her for help with the spelling--because "it's very important to get names right."

4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor.
Why? Children learn ethical values by watching the actions of adults they respect. They also learn values by thinking through ethical dilemmas with adults, e.g. "Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn't like her?"

How? Being a moral role model and mentor means that we need to practice honesty, fairness, and caring ourselves. But it doesn't mean being perfect all the time. For our children to respect and trust us, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and flaws. We also need to respect children's thinking and listen to their perspectives, demonstrating to them how we want them to engage others.

Try this:
â€Â˘ Model caring for others by doing community service at least once a month. Even better, do this service with your child.
â€Â˘ Give your child an ethical dilemma at dinner or ask your child about dilemmas they’ve faced.

Ohanian Comment: In my present life, I am captain of a cooking team for the Senior Center. We cook a lunch for 70 people. Once a month, treasured members of our team were two homeschoolers--ages 8 and 10. There they were helping us seniors. And offering advice: I remember the 8-year-old saying quietly to me, "I think the soup needs more salt."

She said it quietly because she didn't want to hurt the soup maker's feelings. . . and figured as "boss" I could take care of it.

I say "was" because now that they're in public school the girls can't help out any more.

If schools could pull away from training kids to be "college and career ready" for a short time once a month, community service would offer great opportunity--for them and for the community they live in. Believe me, I could make a long list of very real and important skills those girls acquired from their time in the kitchen with us.

But I doubt that SmarterBalanced could figure out how to assess any of those skills.

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